Nature and Love

In the northeast of the United States, we are now fully in the season  of fall. It is a time where the leaves on the trees die, when grass  stops growing, flowers stop blooming, and essentially all of the  wonderful foliage around us begins to appear dead. Wherever we are   living in the world, we are most likely able to embrace that the plants  around us go through cycles with the seasons and through the stages of  their growth and maturity. We even recognize that they need us to tend  to them despite how they may appear during dormant seasons or  particularly vulnerable or unwieldy times in their growth.

While   this appreciation of plant life feels straightforward, most of us have a  harder time accepting that human beings are living with and capable of  the same type of continuous change and growth. Pablo Neruda, in a poem  called, A Callarse, which is translated to English as Keeping Quiet, wrote of the possibility that we might gain perspective on ourselves by looking at the foliage around us:

“Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive”

I stumbled upon this poem excerpt in a book called Loving-Kindness by Sharon Salzberg. The book is a detailed overview on the Buddhist practice of metta, or loving-kindness. Metta is a meditative practice that teaches the power of a kind of love,  different from passion or sentimentality. It helps practitioners  understand love as a depth of fellowship, sympathy, and friendliness. It   is a practice that aims to counteract the power of bitterness,  resentment, and animosity in our lives.

Those who practice metta spend time on a series of meditations intended to help  channel this transformative kind of love. The meditation begins by  directing love to oneself and moves to directing love to a person one  associates with a positive emotion like gratitude or friendship.  Following these two steps, the practice asks one to direct the love to a  neutral person who is not associated with either positive or negative  emotions. The last step is to channel the love to a person that one  associates with negative emotions like animosity or resentment.

I share all of this with you now because I think that, regardless of the faith tradition we practice or not, there are important  intellectual, professional, and interior lessons for service embedded in   these reflections on the plant life around us and in these teachings  about a universal, unselfish, and redemptive love.

When we are conducting service in a world that we have judged to be  unjust, we are constantly working in solidarity with humanity and on  behalf of a belief that people and the systems they create are capable  of change. Every action we take is in some way connected to this core  partnership with humanity and this central belief that change is  possible.

And yet, we all too often are unable to truly employ these values in our relationships with ourselves and our colleagues, family, or peers. We sadly tend to fall back on rigid assessments of the individuals  around us. We often make judgments of who is helpful to us and who is  working against us, and we choose to treat some with respect and others with animosity accordingly. In doing this, we unfortunately and  inadvertently work against both our commitment to humanity and our  belief that change is possible. We also unknowingly set ourselves up for   the possibility of growing angry and of repeating the same challenging   communication and interpersonal dynamics over and over again.

When we close our minds or hearts off to the possibility that all human  beings are worthy of love and capable of change, we give ultimate power  to our negative and oversimplified assessments of a person or situation.  In planting a few seeds of love in even our most difficult  relationships, however, we can open ourselves up to the possibility of  better communication, of connection, and of change. Fundamentally, this process of reorienting to the positive can help each of us free  ourselves from burdensome suspicion and negativity. The practice may  also help us recognize which negative relationships with others have the   potential to improve or change.

Importantly,   opening ourselves up to some practice of positive mindfulness or  all-encompassing love does not mean that we should not allow ourselves  feel a full range of emotions or that we should spend more time in  difficult relationships. It means rather simply that we acknowledge that   we are capable of letting go of resentment, anger, and fear and of  embracing a belief that we are all human and therefore capable of change   and worthy of love.

-- Perry, Associate Director


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